Hocus Pocus debuted in British cinemas on Friday 29th October 1993. A week in which Meat Loaf reigned supreme at number one in the UK singles chart. And Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park continued to dominate UK cinema screens 16 weeks after its initial release. While a new boyband named ‘Take That’ stormed through the music industry. Wooing a whole new generation of young girls and boys with their pop prowess.
Hocus Pocus had already suffered in the USA premiering in July of 1993 against the might of Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. While in the UK the film would have a more favourable premiere alongside Jane Campion’s The Piano. Its release coinciding with Halloween, in a move that should have helped Hocus Pocus rise to the top of the UK cinema charts.
Alas it wasn’t to be, and Hocus Pocus gradually slipped down the UK charts. Earning a meagre £630,018 on its Halloween week debut. Slowly slipping from the public consciousness in the weeks that followed in a sea of high profile cinema releases including Disney’s Aladdin.
So how did a film that struggled to achieve box office success become a cult classic of Halloween viewing? The answer to this lays in a film that cleverly mixed kids horror with a classic Christmas film template. Creating the first real Halloween holiday film.
The Origins of a Cult Classic
Hocus Pocus roots lay in the vision of American story developer, artist and producer David Kirschner. Who in the mid 1980’s pitched a story to Disney executives that he used to read to his kids. A classic Halloween story about a boy turned into a cat by a group of evil witches.
Kirschner’s story appealed to Disney executives, providing a clear link to Disney’s love of fantasy, fairytale and childhood innocence. Coupled with a Halloween theme that tied to the holiday’s growing commercial popularity in the USA. Under the early title of ‘Halloween House’ the script was offered to Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. The potential vision bouncing from a TV movie to possible feature film. Spielberg however, declined his hands full with a range of other projects. The level of his involvement in the films early development remaining a mystery.
Like so many scripts ‘Halloween House’ then progressed through several rewrites. The horror toned down in favour of a more ‘Disney’ family friendly offering. Production stalling several times until 1992 when Bette Midler came on board as Winifred the witch under the title Hocus Pocus. Midler having become a driving force at Disney, with a film partnership that had helped grow Disney’s adult arm Touchstone Pictures.
With a bankable star on board the stage was set for Hocus Pocus to go into production. The film finding a creative lead in the choreographer and emerging film director Kenny Ortega. A man who would go on to become a Disney Channel legend with both High School Musical and Descendants under his wing.
Ortega and Kirschner were both keen to cast the young Leonardo Di Caprio in the central role of Max. A move that would have reunited Di Caprio with the already cast Thora Birch. Both having worked alongside each other on the NBC Television series Parenthood. However Di Caprio opted to take the role of Arnie Grape alongside Johnny Depp in the Oscar nominated What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Ortega then moving to audition several boys for Max, before opting for Omri Katz. A young man who had stared in Joe Dante’s cult TV series Eerie Indiana and just finished shooting the underrated Dante film Matinee.
Katz brought with him a wealth of TV experience, and coupled with Thora Birch (Dani), Vinessa Shaw (Alison) and Sean Murray (Thackery) the young cast was complete. Meanwhile adult casting coupled Midler’s Winifred with Sarah Jessica Parker (Sarah) and Kathy Najimy (Mary) to complete the Sanderson sisters.
The Birth of the Halloween Holiday Movie
Christmas family films have been a staple of cinema since the 1930’s. Films transporting audiences into a world where the value’s and ethos of Christmas overcome the most negative of human emotions. This sub genre of film having gave birth to a range of classics that are watched at Christmas to this day. From Home Alone to Miracle on 34th Street, however Halloween holiday movies are more challenging to identify pre Hocus Pocus. With Halloween cinema sitting firmly in the grasp of the classic horror. Family viewing options mainly geared to Halloween TV specials of Charlie Brown, Disney or Warner Brothers cartoons.
Learning from Monster Squad (1987) and The Witches (1990). Hocus Pocus took cult kids horror and merged it into the classic Christmas movie template. Creating the first real live action Halloween holiday movie.
Christmas movies often centre on those who have lost faith in the joy, traditions and meaning of Christmas. A throwback to the power of Charles Dickens storytelling in A Christmas Carol. Hocus Pocus takes the same route with Max, a teenager who doesn’t believe in Halloween. His dismissal of the traditions, stories and fun of Halloween replaced by the anger, moods and frustration of teenage life in a new town. He is in essence the Scrooge of Halloween. His journey back to appreciating the holiday and its traditions coming through unwanted interaction with the supernatural world.
However, Hocus Pocus also plays with key themes found in the wider horror genre, cleverly subverting them and transferring them to a family format. For example, the vulnerable young virgin girl at the heart of any slasher film. Becomes a virgin teenage boy hunted by a group of supernatural women. The witches dominating the men in their path; the male of species purely there for their entertainment or use. A clear subversion of male power over women inherent in many classics of the horror genre. While monsters like the Billy the zombie are actually trying to do good. And the black cat symbol of evil found in horror is actually a cursed teenage boy trying to ensure the past is never repeated.
This heady mix of horror and Christmas themes makes Hocus Pocus groundbreaking in its long term effect on Halloween inspired cinema. By creating the first true Halloween holiday film, its important place and innovation only growing as the Halloween holiday grew in public recognition.
The Virgin and the Candle
If you have watched Hocus Pocus multiple times the recurring theme of virginity won’t have passed you by. This is explored in depth in the Aaron Wallace book ‘Hocus Pocus – In Focus‘ where Wallace points out the interesting dynamic between the films concept of innocence versus virginity. The witches only really having power over children or teenagers who are virgins. A theme that is imbedded in horror new and old, as virginity is often seen as being the very conduit of innocence.
This couples with a film wrapped in coming of age themes. Max moving to new town, his life becoming isolated from his friends, while his burgeoning sexuality takes flight with Alison. His relationship with his sister (Dani) changing from moody to protective older brother as he grows into a young man. Creating a tale that embodies the themes and traits that make coming of age films connect with audiences of all ages in a deeper way than many other genres.
Hocus Pocus is Halloween
Hocus Pocus could have slipped into cinematic history, a doomed premiere and lacklustre reviews marking its card forever. But it didn’t, in fact it found its voice and audience long after its 1993 premiere. It’s saviour coming in the form of VHS rental and later DVD and TV showings. It is of course not the first film that has been rescued after its release by new audiences, the horror classic The Wicker Man being a prime example. However, unlike other cult films that have found their voice after cinematic release. Hocus Pocus is in essence a family picture, its cult status bound in a mixture of holiday and horror credentials. The film itself becoming a part of Halloween, in a similar way to Home Alone or A Muppet Christmas Carol in December.
In fact the latter example of A Muppet Christmas Carol holds many similarities to Hocus Pocus. Its box office takings mediocre at best, its cult status born through TV, VHS and DVD in the home rather than the cinema. Its mixture of music, comedy and fantasy becoming a part of the Christmas experience in the years since its 1992 release.
Hocus Pocus owes a huge amount to its cast and production values in achieving its place as a holiday film classic. It’s timeless look and sublime improvised comedy lighting up the screen in every scene. While it’s subverted horror themes and Christmas film template capture new audiences with each year that passes. Hocus Pocus has become a film passed down from parent to child, uncle to nephew and aunt to niece. The first and best Halloween holiday movie, that has become embedded into October as much as costumes and pumpkins. Its place in the landscape of holiday film classics cemented by the unique mix of monster horror, comedy and a Halloween riff on classic Dickens.